Russian Propaganda in Belarus
Artsiom Sizintsau, Public Society Research Center, Minsk
Introduction: Russian influence in Central Europe
Russian propaganda is very influential in Belarus. The Russian disinformation campaign is detrimental to the country’s development as the increasing trust in Kremlin’s TV-channels poses a significant threat to sustaining and advancing democracy. This trend became noticeable during the recent Moscow-orchestrated disinformation attempts.
The new phase of Russia’s information warfare began after Mikhail Babich was appointed as Russian ambassador to Belarus. On several occasions the ambassador went beyond the mandate and made different comments on the internal policy of the Government of Belarus.
Russia’s disinformation tactics in Belarus is exemplified by direct criticism of local and national media sources. With the support of Moscow-backed media outlets, Russian embassy organized a press-conference as a tribute to five years of so called “returning Crimea to Russia”. Several Russian state-owned newspapers and TV-channels accused Belarus of being hostile country after a negligence of this press-conference by the Belarussian government and independent media outlets. Almost nobody from Belarusian newspapers attended this meeting with Ambassador Babich. Importantly, blaming Belarusian journalists is a part Russian disinformation campaign as far as Belarus on the state level recognizes Crimea as a part of Ukraine, not Russia. The Russian media are aware of the fact that participation in such press-conference would imply the recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Social media platforms are also frequently used for disinformation campaign in Belarus. Several months ago, Belarusian organisations: Belarusian Association of Journalists, Public Society Research Center, etc. detected that Russian funds started acquiring popular Belorussian social network groups. Notably, new administrations of these groups issued several online polls with the mains question – do you agree or disagree with the full-unification of Belarus with Russia Federation.
On March 25 independent society in Belarus celebrates ‘Dzien Voli’ (A Day of Liberty) which is not a public holiday in Belarus since the current government employs communist narrative. However, many Belarussians deem this date an independence day as Belarusian People’s Republic was announced on the same date back in 1918. On this day, festivities are held throughout the country. These commemorations are labelled by Russian press, especially in the web-sites Regnum, Politring, Teleskop, as a march of Belarusian nationalists. Russian media portrays the celebrations as an act of extreme right forces who, with the financial assistance from the West, celebrate imaginary independence from friendly Russia. The extent of Russian disinformation campaign is clearly exemplified by this case as the Kremlin continuously attempts to mislabel Belarussians’ the joyous day.
The military sphere is always an important part of Russian narrative not only for imperial aspirations but in terms of spreading fake information. In the beginning of 2019 Russian media covered a story on the potential stationing of NATO military base in Belarus. According to Russian media, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Uladzimir Makiej arranged a special meeting with the representatives from North-Atlantic Alliance. Belarusian press presented an evidence that the government representatives in fact held only few conversations about potential cooperation with NATO representatives without any concrete resolutions, important documents or agreement on the future summits. The stationing of NATO military base in Belarus was not even discussed.
It is worth noting that since 2017 Mr. Makiej`s personality attract a lot of attention in the Russian propaganda as he declared two years ago that Belarus is willing to be more than a friend to European Union. Pro-Russian sources reacted to this statement with big outcry calling the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus nationalist who wants to sever all cooperation with Russia. Belarusian politicians, including the President Lukashenko and Mr. Makiej do speak about the prospects of enhancing the cooperation with the EU however changing foreign policy orientation towards the West was not even mentioned. Instead, this is a fake narrative used by pro-Russian media outlets for spreading disinformation in Belarus and provoking negative opinion about the country in Russia by calling Belarus a strongly anti-Russian state. Despite this targeted campaign, it is apparent that Lukashenko is still pro-Russian in many aspects and his power strongly depends on the Kremlin’s financial support.
The damage sustained due to the working of the Russian disinformation machine is felt strongly and intensifies over the time in Belarus. Many Belarusians according to Happiness Index express disagreement with the country’s social policy. It is worth mentioning that Russian propaganda makes Belarussian citizens people believe that Vladimir Putin is able to improve socio-economic situation in the country. Notably, many Belarusians are employed abroad especially in Russia, but mostly in the big agglomerations as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Kremlin’s propaganda concentrates on portraying Russia as an economic and political super-power, equal to the USA in geopolitical terms. In order to counter this narrative, the main objective should be showing a big picture to the people of Belarus and spreading critical thinking skills. The major counterargument against Russian media propaganda in Belarus is to depict the absurdity of a war. An average citizen can easily believe in the fake information that Russian military forces are almighty. But when people realize that their children have to fight and be killed for Putin’s interests, only few will continue to support the idea of unification with Russia. At this point in time this strategy can be the most effective in countering Russian disinformation campaign in Belarus.
Additionally, Belarus is in need of developing media outlets with the aim to report news in a highly ethical and balanced manner, to detect the fake-news effectively. This aim can be achieved in several ways, inter alia, through increasing information-safety standards. Raising awareness and increasing capacity to deal with Fancy Bears (a Russian cyber espionage group) and cyber-attacks from other Kremlin-backed hacker groups is crucially important for well-functioning of internet in Belarus. This is especially critical for the operation of media outlets. Apart from this, editor-in-chiefs of all media in Belarus should make sure that their employees have received sufficient information and training on cyber security standards to safely exchange the information.
In conclusion, independent press in Belarus should make an effort to promote democracy, freedom of speech, and rule of law. Live broadcasting of discussions on disinformation campaigns and podcasts can be effective ways to keep wide audience well-informed. It is vitally important that media outlets are proactive and fight against disinformation which undermines the principles of a democracy.